Japan Part 2: September in Kyoto
Where to Stay
We stayed in Kyoto at Hotel Gran Ms Kyoto during this entire leg of the trip because we wanted a home base. I really loved the location of this hotel. Some of my favorite places to eat were close by, and there is a bakery next door to the hotel that opens at 7am which is great since the hotel doesn’t have breakfast and hardly anything else opens before 9am.
What To Eat + Drink
- Taiyaki Stand – this was our first treat of the day. They serve sweet potato filled fish – shaped cakes. The most common fillings are red bean, but they have a variety of flavors. So yummy.
- Vermillon – espresso bar near the Fushimi Inari Shrine. We dropped by after we finished up at the Shrine and grabbed a coffee and matcha. I become addicted to matcha on this trip – so so good!
- Ippodo Tea– one of Japan’s oldest tea houses
- Goyogo Ramen -they serve burnt tonkatsu broth. It’s SO tasty and different than any Ramen i’ve ever tasted. It’s not your typical ramen spot – it’s more of a nice sit down meal. It was the best Ramen we ate in Kyoto! We tried to find a place similar in SF after out trip!
- Menbajaichidai fire ramen – they literally set your ramen on fire. We didn’t end up going here but heard it’s worth it for the show.
- Kaneyo – one of the oldest, most popular and most famous eel (unagi) restaurants in Kyoto. The food is reasonably priced and very good! We had lunch here after hiking the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
- Tsujiri – go here for a sweet treat while wandering around Gion. Tsujiri is the locals’ favorite green tea dessert shop, selling everything from green tea cakes, ice cream and, most popular of all, green tea parfait
- Tenryuji Shigetsu – eat a prepared vegetarian meal. We had lunch here and it was delicious! You are treated to a bunch of different small dishes, right in the middle of the temple garden, and sitting on the floor on traditional tatami mats. Such an incredible experience.
- Yoramu – we didn’t end up going here because the hours never worked out, but this place came highly recommended. This is an unreal sake bar (run by an Israeli ex-pat). Their sake (actually called Nihon-shu) selection to taste is insane and will make you believe it is the best type of alcohol out there).
- Breizh Cafe– we went here on our last night for dessert while we were waiting to get a foot massage next door. We ordered a bottle of wine and a crepe! I think this place may be a chain around the city. So good!
- Musashi Sushi – great spot to grab lunch! It’s conveyer style and you grab it as it comes past you. Very local, I think we were the only tourists there during lunch. We ate so much sushi, made friends, and had a few beers. It’s really well priced!
- Fushimi Inari Shrine – this was the top of our list to visit. We arrived really early, by 7:30am, in order to avoid the crowds! We hiked all the way to the top which involved lots of stairs and probably took around 2-3 hours. There are thousands of vermillion gates that line the path, creating a maze to the top. Definitely check this out early! We met some amazing people on the train and ended up hiking with them and grabbing lunch after – it was an unforgettable experience.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest– you know bamboo screensaver that was on everyone’s computer in the 90s!? That’s this forest. I was so obsessed with that photo and said that one day I would visit. The bamboo forest is so beautiful and peaceful. I really wanted to try to get there early to avoid the crowds, but it was close the the Fushimi Inari Shrine so we figured we’d just visit them both in the same day. We arrived around 1pm and it was insanely busy – if you have time and can go in the morning, I would highly recommend that. We walked all throughout the forest admiring it’s beauty. We discovered there was a monkey park about a 10-15 minute walk away so we headed there next.
- Monkey Park Iwatayama – wear comfy shoes! It’s a bit of a trek up to the park but it’s well worth it. The monkeys run wild here and there were so many babies running around. You can go into the little house and feed the monkeys on the outside.
- The Pontocho/Gion area – there are little streets in this area with tons of food and bars.
- Nishiki Market – our hotel was super close to this market! Long street market full of stalls on each side serving Japanese treats (teas, sweets, restaurants, and more!)
- Cat Cafes, Owl Cafes, Dog Cafés, Hedgehog Cafés – they are on every corner. Check them out if you have time!
- Mount Fuji. Taking the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, look to the right (or left, for the return trip) and you’ll see Mt. Fuji for a few minutes.
- Nara Park – we opted not to go here because we were going to Miyajima and there were lots of wild deer there. There are deer everywhere here; you can feed them with food you buy from nearby vendors. This is an alternative to going to the actual deer island ( there’s apparently a rabbit island too).
Hiroshima is very different than everywhere else we visited. The city was completely destroyed and rebuilt, and it’s a business center so there’s not too much going on. There is so much beauty throughout the city and a a lovely river in the middle. We decided to leave Kyoto around 7am to make the most of our day and beat the crowds (my favorite way to travel!). We are so happy we made it to Hiroshima, it’s such a charming city and everyone is so kind.
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – this museum shares some very emotional footage, but it is so wonderfully put together and does a great job of sharing the details and stories of the victims and survivors of the atomic bombs. The exhibits are incredible (audio, visual and interactive), and all signs are available in English and Japanese. We spent around 2 hours here, after walking through the Peace Park and visiting the dome.
- Eat Okonomiyaki (you can do this in Osaka too, but I’ve heard that Hiroshima does it best). It’s a Japanese ‘pancake’ that has noodles, sauces, eggs, meats, etc. They’re really filling so you could probably get away with sharing one. If you’re located in San Francisco – I recently found a place called Villon that does a pretty good take on Okanomiyaki.
Miyajima Island (Itsukushima)
Miyajima is a small island in Hiroshima Bay. It’s about a 10 minute Ferry ride from Hiroshima (the ferry works with a JR pass). Miyajima is filled with forests, wild deer, ancient temples, and is known for the large, orange Torii Gate. The Torri Gate is beautiful and looks different in low tide vs high tide – when the tide comes in it looks like it’s floating. The entire island is a sanctuary and very peaceful.
We spent so much time walking around the island, playing with the deer, and trying oysters and snacks at the street market. Many people come for a day trip, but if we had more time I would have loved to stay in a Ryokan on the island for one night. It’s so peaceful and once the last ferry leaves the island is so quiet. I really loved playing with the deer. There are thousands of Sika deer that freely roam the streets of Miyajima. In the Shinto religion, deer are considered to be messengers of the gods and are sacred. The deer are all so friendly – just be careful if you have food because they’ll definitely try to eat it. 🙂 One of my favorite photos of this trip is the deer standing in line at the food stand! How cute!
I was so bummed we didn’t get to make it to Osaka. I really wanted to spend Saturday nigh in Dotonbori but we were so exhausted after our Hiroshima/Miyajima day trip! If you have time, definitely check it out – it’s so close Kyoto. There is also an aquarium and Ferris wheel, both of these are some of the largest in the world and are right next to each other on the water. There is also Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museuem. It’s an interactive museum where you learn the entire ramen-making process and put together your own instant cup noodles.
- Kyoto is very large. If you don’t want to walk you can rent a bike for $30 day.
- Make sure you ask for directions if you need them. We ended up on the wrong train to Kyoto from Tokyo. Luckily we realized in time and got off and waited for the correct train but we were definitely a little panicked.
- You are not allowed to walk and eat or drink on the streets. You will notice many vending machines on every other block. You can only drink nearby the vending machine and throw away your trash in the garbage can next to the vending machine. At most train stations, they sell boxed bentos for you to take on the train. We purchased one on our way to Kyoto.
- Google Maps works well for the subways and JR trains. Finding the platform can sometimes be a challenge but look for the number and destination and you should be able to find it. I also really like using Maps.Me – you can download the maps in advance so it works without wifi.
- Wear comfy shoes, bring a battery pack and extra luggage to buy lots of goodies! I used a carry-on for the entire trip and hardly had enough room to bring back goodies. Pack as light as possible!
- Some of the links I used when trying to figure out the JR – JR lined simplified, and Tokyo to Osaka.
- Bento is a great resource for food. It’s broken down by city.
- I wish we had more time in Kyoto to explore an Onsen. Inside Kyoto is such a good resource for planning your trip and learning about Onsens.
Thanks for reading!!